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Deer: Post-Season Scouting, Part 2 - Finding Core Rut Zones - Pacific Northwest Bowhunting

Finding Core Rut Zones

In Part 1 of this series I discussed the importance of mapping deer trail networks when the deciduous trees and vegetation are bare, revealing otherwise difficult to discern trail networks and other key topography features.  In this post, I will explain my approach to locating and how to treat core rutting areas, or Rut Zones, as I call them.

These Rut Zones can be defined as intensely intimate locations where bucks converge to participate in the breeding ritual with resident does.  In other words, bucks move into these area to locate and corral does and lay claim to them until they are ready to breed.

In the process of doing this, they absolutely hammer – and I mean hammer – the immediate area with rubs.  There will be obvious dominant rub lines along arterial trails and many individual rubs littered throughout the area.  These territorial markings are a display of dominance and can reveal the age-class of bucks in the area.  You will also note that there are new rubs on top of old rubs.  This is a key attribute of Rut Zones.  (In a future post I will go into great detail about reading rub sign).

If you find yourself wondering if you’ve stumbled into a core Rut Zone, you likely have not.  Examine the photo below and you’ll see what I mean.  There are approximately 32 rubs within the field of view of this photo.  It looks like this in a 360 degree view.  Jaw-dropping, right?  Now you know what to look for.

So, how do you find these hotspots throughout the larger deer landscape?  You can certainly stumble upon them throughout your hunting season if you’re lucky, but there’s a better way.

Step 1If you’re starting from scratch in a new area or based upon cursory-level knowledge of an existing hunting area, then start with an aerial image.  Google Earth and Bing Maps are the simplest way to explore hunting areas virtually from above.  You can easily create print-outs suitable to mark up with notes, which is what I do annually.  Some counties have established Geo-spatial data mapping services within their websites.  These are powerful tools as they allow you to overlay topography, wetlands, zoning, and many other key features.

Step 2Plot and transfer every known deer trail to the aerial photo or overlay.  You may need significant boot time to accomplish this, and it’s best done post season while shed hunting.  Walk every inch of every trail, noting any rubs, destinations (food/bedding), key food sources, water, and funnel locations.


Step 3Identify resident doe core areas.  This can take several months to establish consistency of doe sightings and dial in these high-use home ranges of localized doe groups.  Trail cameras are extremely beneficial for this activity.  Once you are confident that you’ve identified these areas, plot them in general terms on your map/aerial image.

Step 4Now “zoom out” a bit and look at topography and the overall lay of the land stretching out a mile or two radius from these known doe core areas.  Bucks will travel far and wide during the seeking phase of the rut.  They will utilized topography to their advantage, often weaving the shortest path between doe groups, intersecting and scent-checking trails as they travel.  They move a lot and sometimes throw caution to the wind, crossing roads, highways, school playgrounds at recess, etc.

With this data assembled, you want to apply good old fashioned woodsmanship to predict on paper likely Rut Zone locations.  For blacktails, this is typically area that is wet or damp, thick with plenty of security cover, and will contain a mix of alders, firs, and willows.  Aerial images will help indicate these spots, especially in the winter when bare trees and vegetation contrast against evergreens.  Note in the photo below, which I took out the window on a recent flight to Oregon, the Douglas fir trees are dark green while the alders appear a gray/tan color.

Hike the area and search for rubs.  And just as you might follow a difficult blood trail, start gridding out the area to see if you can find a concentration of rubs like those shown here.  Once you do, make sure you log the location and keep it secret.  The following two images were taken less than 10 feet apart.  The presence of scarred rub trees with fresh rub trees is a key indicator that you’re in a tradional core Rut Zone.

Personally, once I have found these spots, I stay away from them unless logging or other activity would cause me to reevaluate the situation.  The rub sign from the previous fall is all the information I need in order to begin planning for the next season.

This whole Rut Zone thing is not an exact science by any stretch but having these four ingredients will enable you to start looking at the big picture and study the natural forces at play when the rut kicks into overdrive. 

In Part 3 I will share my process for mapping hot stand locations.  Stay tuned!